Gail Schwieterman is a PhD candidate at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, where she is examining physiological stress responses in coastal elasmobranchs. She is a graduate of Oberlin College, and is a Thomas Watson Fellow and National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow. Gail serves on her institution’s Diversity and Inclusion Steering Committee, and is passionate about diversity in higher education. When not studying sharks, she enjoys reading dystopian novels, teaching yoga, and cooking Chinese food.
Briefly describe your current work and your research.
I am a PhD candidate at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, and I am studying stress in coastal sharks. For example, I am working to understand what happens to the heart when animals are caught and released, and how their blood changes during that process. I am also working to understand how these species might fare under climate change scenarios by measuring their blood chemistry and metabolism.
What do you love the most about your job?
There are two main things that I really enjoy about my job, and which keep me motivated to pursue a career in academia. First, I love the idea that I am contributing to the body of human knowledge. It might sound cheesy, but the fact that I am currently using methods developed before I was born really underscores the idea that science builds on itself.
Second, I really enjoy the fact that I don’t have someone checking when I clock in and out, or feeling like 8 hrs out of every day aren’t my own. This means that I don’t have to ask for time off of work to spend time with my family, or to go to the doctor’s office. I set my work schedule to match my life. There are downsides to this of course: it becomes difficult to leave work at work, and there is a sense that you could always be doing more. However, for me personally, this freedom to set my own hours helps me stay motivated to be productive when I am working.
How difficult was it to get where you are today?
I don’t think difficult is necessarily the right word. It was a long processes, and it was a competitive process, but those things were always sort of appealing to me. I was motivated to pursue a PhD because I love science, and that was never in question.
I think that everyone has their own struggles in their career journeys. For some, it might be finding a job, or needing to move away from home, or working out a work/life balance that leaves enough space to raise children. For me, one of the most difficult things so far has been learning to roll with the punches when experiments don’t work out as planned. I’ve had a decent number of setbacks with my research goals, and I’ve been working on trying to see these as opportunities for creative problem solving, or for side projects I wasn’t sure I had the time for.
What was the biggest obstacle in your way before your career reached where it is today? How did you overcome it?
Finding funding for my research has been challenging. I am entirely self-funded, which means that all of the money for my stipend, tuition, and research costs come from grants I’ve received. This means I am largely at the mercy of funding agencies, and that I spend a lot of time writing proposals. It is a difficult situation for sure, but it gives me the freedom to pursue exactly the questions I am interested in, without being forced into other projects I am less passionate about.
I’ve overcome this challenge by writing proposals. A lot of proposals. It can get tedious, but I know being able to write well is an essential skill for a successful career in academia, so I don’t mind too much.
What are you looking forward to the most in the future of marine science?
There has been a recent resurgence in the popularity of physiology as a tool for marine conservation and marine resource management. This is exciting because it is the field I am currently working in, but also because it signals support of mechanistic understandings of marine processes. I believe that in order to have truly effective policies, we need understand the nuances and details of how individuals interact with their environments and with stressors. I am very excited to watch this field continue to develop, and hopefully to contribute my own findings as well!
How do you think we can get more women involved within marine science?
Organizations like the Gills Club are great at encouraging STEM interests at a young age. I think that encouraging math and computer science skills throughout lower school will help increase representation of women in STEM in general.
What one piece of advice would you give to aspiring female marine scientists?
Oh man, can I give three?
• Don’t be afraid to take time off between high school and college, or college and grad school. There’s often some perceived pressure to get in and get it done and build your CV as fast as possible. I’ve known so many students who get halfway through a degree and realize they aren’t happy. There’s nothing wrong with taking a couple of years to figure out exactly what you want to do, and exactly what you need to get there.
• Take a computer science class! Get comfortable with R, or Python, or Matlab. This will help you immensely in grad school if you decide to go, and/or in finding a job.
• Dream big. Trust your gut. Ask for help when you need it.
In one sentence, why do you think a career within marine science is a great career option?
Marine science is a fascinating discipline because it is so incredibly multi-faceted; with elements of ethics, anthropology, sociology, law and policy, biology, chemistry, physics, economics, and history, there is something to interest everyone!
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I would like to give a massive thank you to Gail Schwieterman for participating in this interview. I cannot wait to share more of your stories and I hope that you find inspiration in learning of other journeys within marine science.
Are you a woman working within marine science? Would you like to share your story and inspire the next generation? Please get in contact with me at email@example.com if you would like to be involved with the Leading Women in Marine Science Interview Series.
Disclaimer: All responses to the interview questions belong to Gail Schwieterman. The biography and all photographs used also belong to Gail Schwieterman.